Tribalism and Christmas Lights

“There is another kind of evil which we must fear most … and that is the indifference of good men.” Boondock Saints


Team spirit. Mandan, North Dakota.

On November 24th, in Mandan, I saw something of the Standing Rock movement that bothered me.

We drove into Mandan in a caravan of cars. Our destination, like always, was unknown until we arrived. And like before, a strong police presence greeted us.

Our target: The intersection of East Main Street and Mandan Avenue in Mandan, right by Burger King.
We piled out of the vehicles and unpacked the cargo from the trailer. There were five long banquet tables and boxes of carrots, radishes and beats. Then came badly made life-size effigies hung on wooden crosses, and banners. The banners read with the same slogans; Oil is Genocide, ‘Respect’ beneath the visage of Sitting Bull, and a new one that read…

“Kill the Pilgrims”

This is not what I came to Standing Rock to say.

There are two ways to advocate for a political aim: PRO and ANTI. This slogan was neither anti-DAPL or pro-water. This hateful declaration depicted the ethnocentrism that pervades both Standing Rock and the United States.

It is deplorable on both sides.

Prepped for tear gas. Mandan, North Dakota.

I spoke with anonymous higher ups in the native community regarding the disturbing vein of ethnocentrism in the statement “Kill the Pilgrims,” and they were very, very clear: No one from the official art department of Oceti Sakowin created those banners. The movement’s ultimate goal is peace. Separate factions in camp will put forth “initiatives” and take matters into their own hands, and it’s difficult to regulate.
Like Frankenstein’s monster, the society within the #NODAPL movement has agency beyond the will of the Native Council. They have asked Red Warrior to leave over half a dozen times.

They, along with the Youth Council, prescribe to peaceful tactics to stop DAPL, protect their ancestral land, and the water that is the bedrock of this reservation according to Winters vs. United States (1908), and the Treaty of Fort Laramie 1851.



Earlier this week, I interviewed two women who’d been harassed by police in Mandan. The community of Mandan has been repeatedly targeted by Water Protectors.

Camp cooking at Winona’s Kitchen. Oceti Sakowin Camp.

Kana Newell and Liz George had been encamped at Standing Rock in an effort to support indigenous sovereignty and tribal access to clean water. After a demonstration, they went to buy dinner in Mandan wearing ‘No DAPL’ patches on their clothing. When they tried to leave, two police officers seated nearby called them over to talk.

When they were tired of the conversation, the police offered to arrest them for disorderly conduct.

George recounts:

Their first question to us was ‘Are you guys going back to camp tonight or are you staying in Mandan?’ It was a very strange question to ask right off the bat… ‘How long are you guys staying here?’ We said until the pipeline gets shutdown – they said it wasn’t gonna happen. They told us we weren’t doing ourselves any good…

They were making a scene, talking loudly. They would ask us a question and the just talk over us. At that point, [the officer] didn’t like what we were saying, so I pulled out the video.

The officers said, ‘If you don’t leave now, we’re going to arrest you.’

Arrest us for what?

‘Disorderly conduct.’

Before George and Newell left, a white woman screamed at the girls to “Go home!” which is very hard to hear as a person of color, George told me. George is of India-Indian-descent and Newell is half-Japanese. The police did not accuse the white woman of disorderly conduct, which George found odd.

They went to a supermarket afterward. Before going in, they took off their patches – for safety. “We’re lucky that we can take that patch off, you know?” Newell told me, “For some people, it’s the color of their skin – they can’t take that patch off.”

George and Newell posted their encounter online, and it went viral. The next day, they were again targeted in Mandan by a police while sitting in a parked car. The charges were not wearing seatbelts, chipped paint on their license plate, and not using a turn signal.

For bullshit, in other words.

“This is a taste of what people they perceive to be a danger are treated like,” George said.


The Cost of Freedom

Joyride, Oceti Sakowin Camp.

Within Oceti Sakowin there is another camp called Red Warrior. This camp represents a faction of the movement that is more aggressive than the prayerful focus of the greater movement. Hate is an unavoidable emotion out here, and like homosexuality, not everyone can simply pray it away. Red Warrior has one clear difference in their stance on DAPL: They are willing to die to protect the water.

White complacency with the oppression of native sovereignty (by corporate and national interests) is why Red Warrior exists.

Red Warrior knows the cavalry is coming, but it’s on the wrong side for Standing Rock.

Meanwhile, non-natives who aren’t pulling their weight have begun to invade Standing Rock. It’s starting to look like OcetiFest2016. The struggle itself seems to be a commodity for people to align themselves with peripherally, but they don’t go to actions. They don’t go to orientation. They don’t face the water cannons and tear gas. Although they aren’t exploiting native culture (and resources), they are, however, exploiting the struggle for justice.

This is a learning process for them, too.

The appearances by celebrities and politicians has been helpful, it’s somewhat moot. The only celebrity who stayed to actually work was Patricia Arquette – she built composting toilets – like a true ally.


My Tribe

Author impersonating a Friedrich painting.

I am Jewish and I have family who live in the West Bank in Israel. Israel is a nation for Jewish people to be safe from oppression. It’s a home for those who have been without one for thousands of years. Meanwhile, Palestinians within Israel face oppression from the Israeli Government. Within those Palestinian communities are their own Red Warrior camps capturing the anger of their youth and anyone motivated to fight back.

We ride into our lives and are given badges we cannot remove, and we learn to pursue peace. But what peace? Is non-violence against active oppression actually peace?

What about inner peace?

Perhaps the difference between Red Warrior and the greater movement is how they feel peace in their gait.

This movement is not about taking an eye for an eye. Prayer and forgiveness are emphasized throughout the community. And yet when people begin to shout “We love you,” at police in hate rather than truly recognizing the common humanity that precedes the branching into tribalism, it is clear they have not chosen prayer or the path of Red Warrior, but rather some murky, meek middle ground.


Divergence as Unity

In the town of Cannonball, North Dakota, there are three indigenous languages other than English. Languages, like species, are divergent from themselves, ever-splitting into new factions over geography.

The basic unit of genetic divergence is the love story. Read your Shakespeare – Love doesn’t care about politics, tribalism, money, alliances or feuds. What is happening at Standing Rock is an ultimately a love story between a people and their mother (the earth), and their battle to defend her from rape and exploit of a reckless hegemony. For the natives, this relationship to the earth is a way of life, and not a religion. It is love for one’s land.

Oceti Sakowin Camp

What is difficult to accept are the little sparks of reductionist racial types implied in the banner of Oceti Sakowin. The symbol is a circle with four quadrants: Red, White, Black, and Yellow. It reminds me of a neo-liberal fascistic logo. Its very color scheme seems to echo taxons like Negroid, Caucasoid, or Mongoloid – ideas that are conflated with sociopolitical ideas rather than meaningful genetic categories.

It’s simple and wrong rather than complicated and truthful, in my opinion.

The unity aspect is appreciable, but the irony of the four categories being a western concept looks like a resurgence of the ethnocentrism (as racism) that is responsible for this pipeline being 1,500 feet from the Great Sioux Nation.

And then there’s Israel. And suddenly tribalism doesn’t seem possible to ignore, just as inner peace cannot be ignored. Not for me. Defending the water for future generations is the closest thing to peace I have known.


The Need for Executive Action

The world is watching.

President Obama’s campaign was based on the promise of hope. At Standing Rock, we have come to rely on our own political power and the generosity of domestic and international backing.

After December 5th, the Army Corp of Engineers is going to attempt to evict the bulk of this movement from Oceti Sakowin Camp. If they succeed, at least we won’t have to explain to non-natives why putting up Christmas decorations on sovereign land is inappropriate.

Mr. Obama stated on November 1st, “We are going to let it play out for several more weeks and determine whether or not this can be resolved in a way that I think is properly attentive to the traditions of the first Americans.”

I applaud the president for not stepping between the populace and our adversary. Mr. Obama taught constitutional law at the University of Chicago. The preamble to the constitution declares “We the People” – not “The Executive Benefactor of the People”. Like any minor deity worth their snuff, Mr. Obama has chosen to be non-interventionist. He is allowing us to solve our own problems, like children that must grow and embolden themselves while retaining our humanity.

Thank you Mr. President. I mean it. But know this… The Constitution was paid for with the lives of patriots. By not stopping DAPL and supporting this eviction, you’re asking these patriots to pay the same price.

If President Obama continues to be non-interventionist before December 5th, we will likely see Wounded Knee 3.0. The defiance of Red Warrior, along with the rest of camp, is going to oppose this eviction with their lives. Any injuries or deaths will be on the President.

Unlike those of us who can go home after this is over, they have nothing to lose.

Cannonball, North Dakota. Sovereign Territory of the Great Sioux Nation.

November 26th, 2016.

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